At Baltimore church, a view of the future

Lutheran-Episcopalian collaboration at work

August 23, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff

The Rev. Roberto Maldonado is an Episcopal priest and rector of a Canton church. He also happens to be functioning as a Lutheran pastor.

Far from triggering an ecclesiastical investigation, Maldonado's dual status anticipates the cooperation and sharing of resources that would result from the historic agreement approved last week between the Episcopal Church and the nation's largest Lutheran denomination.

Maldonado and his church, La Iglesia de los Tres Santos Reyes (The Church of the Three Holy Kings), are part of a joint mission to Hispanics supported by the local Lutheran synod and the Maryland Episcopal diocese, the first such collaboration in the state and one of the few in the country.

The experiment at Tres Santos Reyes, now 3 years old, could become a model for future collaboration between the two Protestant denominations, under the agreement adopted Thursday by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The agreement would establish "full communion" between the two denominations, allowing them to exchange clergy and to cooperate in service and mission projects. Its greatest impact would be felt in rural areas or ethnic inner-city churches where available clergy may be scarce.

"It means a Lutheran congregation could call an Episcopal priest to be its pastor, or an Episcopal church could call a Lutheran minister to be its rector," said Bishop Robert W. Ihloff of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.

The agreement, "Called to Common Mission," will not be officially enacted until the Episcopalians approve it at their convention in July 2000.

'Reason to celebrate'

"There's reason to celebrate, but it's premature to assume all the hurdles are over, or there won't be some concerns expressed" in the Episcopal church, Ihloff said. For example, while the Episcopal church has ordained deacons, the Lutherans have no equivalent office.

"I've already had two e-mails from deacons in my diocese about how that might impact their ministry," said Ihloff, who added that he expects the agreement to be adopted.

The agreement, three decades in the making, was nearly overwhelmingly accepted by the Episcopal church at its 1997 general convention. But later that year, the document, which was called at that time the "Concordat of Agreement," failed to garner the two-thirds vote needed for approval at the Lutheran churchwide assembly. It had to be reworked and re-introduced at this year's gathering.

At issue for many Lutherans is the "historic episcopate," the Episcopalian concept that bishops who ordain priests come from a line that stretches back to the earliest days of the church. Episcopal bishops serve for life, whereas Lutheran bishops are elected for six-year terms and then relinquish the title.

Although about a quarter of the world's Lutheran churches recognize the historic episcopate, antipathy on the part of many in the denomination toward the office is rooted in their history.

Lutheran opposition

"There are some Lutherans who simply were adamantly opposed to it primarily among the Norwegians, who at a certain period in their history were under the colonial rule of Sweden," said Lutheran Bishop George Paul Mocko of the Maryland-Delaware Synod.

"Sweden, as a part of their governing of Norway, had bishops and pastors appointed by the crown and who then became part of the colonial rule," he said. "Many of those who fled that rule came here

to America with that bitter experience, and they carried with them a resentment and suspicion of ecclesiastical authority that is reflected in this opposition."

The descendants of those Norwegian immigrants form the backbone of the Midwestern Lutheran church.

In Maryland, that suspicion is considerably less -- three-quarters of the local synod approved the agreement with the Episcopalians -- and as a result, there are fewer barriers to collaboration. Therefore, when the need and opportunity arose in 1996 to form a joint ministry to the Hispanic community, the two Maryland denominations did not wait for the approval of the official document.

"We've been doing the 'Concordat' for awhile now. We've been doing it since our inception," said the Rev. Anthony Vidal, the first Episcopal priest to serve in the joint ministry, who will return to Tres Santos Reyes to serve with Maldonado after a year-long sabbatical.

Critical support

Missions such as Tres Santos Reyes, with about 20 members, simply cannot support themselves. The parish could not afford a full-time minister like Maldonado without the financial help of the Lutheran and Episcopal churches. "This mission would not be here if it were not for the support of both denominations," Maldonado said.

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